The man only says, "I need to see him now," and O'Donnell acquiesces. In this role he plays the role of "procedural technician," controlling access to the President rather than materials. O'Donnell gives the impression of knowing the people he works with very well, allowing him to make quick, decisive decisions. He comes to a stalemate with Jackie over the guest list for a party, but trusts that the person seeking to speak with the President has used good judgment in his request and admits him immediately.
He also recognizes his partial role as a functionary, and does not follow the man into the Presidential office, but waits until he's been invited. Once O'Connell is in the President's office, the President acts as gatekeeper. He immediately has O'Connell look at the photographs Bundy has brought in because of O'Connell's military background. This also serves to accelerate group consensus so that everyone agrees that the pictures show Russian missiles in Cuba. The President plays the role of the "Orienter," summarizing the options on the table for the group. However, body language suggests that he is aware of how strongly the military thinks their plan should be the one adopted. At the end of the meeting, Dean Atchison lays out how the war will spread from Cuba to Berlin and involve NATO, and probably, nuclear weapons, and finally says, "Hopefully, cooler heads will prevail." The head of the Joints Chief of Staff's facial and body language, grimacing and leaning forward, suggests that he does not want to give diplomacy chance, but put military plans into play immediately. This meeting reflects the textbook's observation that at a rectangular table, people tend to talk across from each other and not in any kind of circular pattern (textbook, p. 275).
In these meetings, he himself does not initiate ideas, but he encourages ideas from others. He applies reason to each idea, keeps an open mind, seems to be aware of hidden agendas, and encourages participation by others (textbook, pp. 272-274). In meetings with just Robert Kennedy and Kenneth O'Donnell, he states what he thinks more directly, probably because the three are in agreement that they want to avoid war if any way can be found. One management approach never used in this movie is "Laisssez-faire" (textbook, p. 280). Events are never allowed to just unfold; O'Connell and others always provide steerage.
How this meeting breaks up is interesting. The two Kennedys and O'Donnell leave through one door, and the strong proponents of an immediate military action leave through another, gather in the hall, and realize that the President has not yet been persuaded to take a first-strike military approach. The movie has visually and verbally laid the groundwork for a group storm (textbook, p. 245).
As the group storm develops, the Chief of Staff confronts President Kennedy directly in the presence of Robert Kennedy and Kenneth O'Donnell and insists that military action is the only option. Kennedy then insists that the advisors come to consensus. Kennedy continues to remain open to all options, and has two speeches prepared: one if the United States imposes a quarantine around Cuba to block ships, and a second if military action is taken. Adlai Stevenson puts his beliefs on the line and offers to work out a "back-door" diplomatic solution.
Ultimately, the President, Robert Kennedy and Kenneth O'Donnell come to a consensus to try a combination of quarantine, which really is a blockade combined with diplomatic efforts. While Kennedy wants consensus among all his advisors, he really does not completely have it. In a meeting with the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the President realized that the Navy's plan for running the quarantine includes firing on Russian ships if they refuse to stop and be inspected. While the shots would be aimed at the rudder to disable the ship, it is still an unacceptable escalation to Kennedy. In addition, the military has ordered low-level flights to take pictures, and those planes will be fired upon. Under the military's rules of engagement, this means the U.S. planes can fire back.
O'Donnell meets with the President and explains to him that the military is arranging things so the result will be war. The President then orders O'Connell to make sure that the military does not do things to escalate the situation into war without the President's explicit orders. At this point O'Donnell's authoritarian approach to leadership works well, as he gives the unusual order to the lead pilot that they are not to be shot at. If they crash, they crashed into a mountain or had mechanical failure. They are not to report being fired upon. While he is directive of this squadron leader, he is also respectful of the orders under which the pilot must operate. Rather than giving abrupt, stern orders to the pilot, explains that the President will have to respond if they are fired upon, with possible dire consequences. Using reason, O'Connell is able to work with the squadron leader so that the pilot does his job within the President's framework. This is evident later when ground crew notice bullet holes, and the Squadron Leader informs everyone quite emphatically that they were hit by a flock of sparrows. He also repeats this story, with confidence, to a somewhat incredulous military commander. This happens because O'Connell knew how to communicate to the squadron leader in the most effective way and was able to adjust his communication style to fit the situation.
All of these events relate to the issue of "group storm" and consensus. O'Connell knows that the group of advisors has not formed a true consensus, and he knows that the military is working hard to undermine the President's decision, which is to take all possible steps to take any action that could lead to war.
Communication difficulties continued. The military detonate a test hydrogen bomb in the Pacific, which the two Kennedys and O'Donnell realize will be interpreted by the U.S.S.R. As a non-verbal threat. Those opposed to Kennedy's approach knew this, undoubtedly, which is why they detonated the hydrogen bomb, and why they shot a star shell over the bow of a U.S.S.R. ship.
Throughout the movie, Kenneth O'Connell plays a key role in facilitating the orders issued by the President, as the Joint Chiefs escalate the United State's war footing from DefCon3 to Defcon2. O'Connell continues to explain how actions will be interpreted - what they will communicate to the Russians. The final solution to this crisis is mediated by a professional communicator - a journalist.
This movie is no doubt at least partly fictionalized. It may be artistic license that puts Kenneth O'Donnell squarely in the middle of nearly all events, including the climactic moment in the United Nations when Stevenson proves to that body that the missiles are there, and the work of the journalist to create a communication channel between Kennedy and Kruschev that brings a final, peaceful solution to the events. However, the movie demonstrates the best and worst of communication between individuals and groups, and in particular the difficulties of bringing people to consensus when their views differ widely.
Holmes, Prue. 2004. "Negotiating differences in learning and intercultural communication: ethnic Chinese students in a New Zealand University." Business Communication Quarterly, September.